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Saturday, August 02, 2003

Tourist Town, but Still Incredible...
Segovia, Spain

Did you read how were were planning on going to Toledo? Well... bit of a change in plans, rather sponaneously, in fact. Jon struck up a conversation on the street with a lady from New York, who suggested we skip Toledo and visit Segovia instead. Well, we┤re really glad we did (not knowing what we┤ve just missed in Toledo, of course), because we┤ve been treated to a feast for the eyes.

Segovia is an incredibly well-preserved Spanish town that looks like it hasn┤t changed since the 14th century (as long as you skip the tourist row of shops and cafes of course). In fact, the Roman aquaduct that brought water into the original part of town is still standing, and it is IMPRESSIVE. You┤ll see when we next get a chance to post pictures. I got up at 6am (again! so weird!) to see the sunrise through the arches of the aquaduct, and it was well worth it. This is a photographer┤s paradise.

Spain has certainly outlived my expectations. The two museums we visited (Museo del Prado and Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) were incredible, containing works from familiar artists (Picasso, Dali, Miro) and many more that we didn┤t know. I┤ve really enjoyed the food; the tapas and cana are perfect at around 9pm, when people start congregating in cafes for dinner, although I┤m uncertain Jen and Jon share the same sentiment.

Well, we┤re now heading to the train station, where we┤ll head back to Madrid and take the overnight train to Lisbon, Portugal. Not really sure where we┤re going to visit after that, but eventually we┤ll make our way back somewhere into Southern Spain. See you then!

Thursday, July 31, 2003

Hola de Madrid!
Madrid, Spain

It's hot outside - 41C so we┤re beating the heat by escaping to an Internet Cafe where it's cool (thank goodness for air conditioning). I forgot to mention one thing about London - did you know that all swans are owned by the Queen of England? So next time you visit, make sure you don┤t interfere with them or else a royal guard will be after you.

Back to Madrid, and the heat. This city has surprised me, I read in the guide books that it is a fairly modern city, but what I see is a very wealthy, modern city. The old architecture has been preserved on many of their buildings, with wonderful balconys, sculptures and fašades. The streets are also very interesting, with a mixture of narrow winding roads as well as multi-laned highways across the city. There are many parks and fountains all over the city. I can understand why the locals spend so much time relaxing outside or strolling in the evenings. It has been a relief to find that the toilets here are very decent. In fact, they are often cleaner than the ones at home. I know this isn┤t a topic of interest, but it is such an important part of travelling! ;)

The people here all dress very well. The women are often in sleeveless tops, and skirts or pants/capris. Of course, the skirts are sometimes shorter than the shorts we wear. There are lots of flip flops on the street, or sandals. I don┤t think I've seen any closed shoes other than on tourists┤feet. I suppose it┤s because of the hot weather here. The city is also very clean, with public trash bins easily accessible. It was difficult to find them in London, especially near the tube and train stations.

Our first day here in Madrid we went to have tapas at Santa Ana. Gotta add money to the internet.. be right back..

OK.. I have another hour to play online. Back to tapas - we ordered an assortment of toasts, meatballs and grilled peppers. The peppers were very yummy, but some of the cheese spreads on the toasts were very strong (imagine blue cheese, but multiply its smell and taste by 10x). We wandered around the central area of the city, mostly around the Puerta del Sol before walking back to our hostel (Ole International) at around midnight. The hostel is a friendly place but I think we're a little old to mix in with the crowd. When we got back at midnight, there was a party going on in the reception area (right next to our room). There were people smoking, drinking and getting ready to go out. By the time we got ready for bed, at 1:30am, we could still hear the party at full force. Thank goodness for ear plugs.

The next morning, we walked over to the Youth Hostel and booked 2 nights there. This hostel is very well maintained, as it is a part of the Hostelling International network. The genders were split up, so I got to sleep in a room with 7 other girls. I didn┤t actually get to see any of my roommates since by the time we got back in the evening, the room was already dark with people sleeping. We spent much of the day walking. We visited the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library of Spain) where there was also an amazing exhibit on the library in Alexandria. The building of the new library (which opened late last year) was showcased, as were several books from the 14th century. It was neat to see books on Math, Astronomy, Philosophy, Medicine, etc. with the same contents that are still being taught to college students today. Jon and I got into a discussion as to why these subjects were explored so much more in that past, and whether it was due to the political/cultural environments of the time. It sure gave us a sense of appreciation for these tough topics. The National Library was fascinating - all marble and stone blocks, with sculptures everywhere. It sure gave one a sense of awe and importance. I tried to visit the reference department but it seems that they only allow people with passes/library cards in. They did ask if I was a professor, but since I didn┤t have any ID, it wasn┤t going to work. You have to realize, that all this was done in Spanish since they didn┤t speak English. So I might not even have understood them except for the words ┤card┤and ┤professor┤. Hehe. Such is the importance of language, eh?

After lunch, we spent some time relaxing at the Parque del Buen Retiro, which is a huge park. There was a large water structure in the middle of the park where one could go out on a row boat. In fact, there were several boats floating around though the people looked very hot. By now, it was probably about 2pm and the sun was still up high. There was also a Palacio de Cristal (crystal palace) here, and all the walls of the structure were made of glass. Unfortunately they seem to be doing some kinds of renovations so we didn┤t get to see what used to be there. Our next stop was the Museo del Prado - considered one of the most important museums in the world (or at least according to the guidebooks). The Prado is home to a large collection of paintings, including those from El Greco, Rembrandt, Raphael, Goya, Titian, etc. They had 2 floors of Spanish works, along with a whole wing of sculptures. We spent a couple of hours here admiring these old paintings. It is always very interesting when I get to see artifacts from the past. It is hard to imagine what life was like back then, and to have an appreciation of how long ago these things were first touched by human hands.

We had tapas again for dinner, this time at a restaurant which was BUSY. It appears to be a very popular local hangout. Everyone was drinking beer, eating, and talking very happily. It was neat to sit there, and just observe the exchanges between the Spaniards, and of course, to enjoy our food and drinks. One thing though, it is very expensive to be a tourist in Madrid. The Euro is quite strong right now, and has been consistently increasing in value. Since prices of food is about the same as home, with the higher exchange rate, everything is just a bit pricier. Luckily we are still at the beginning of our trip, and our bank account is still fairly healthy. Whew.

Today we boarded the Madrid Vision, a hop on, hop off bus that travels through three routes: historical, monumental and modern. We┤ve already completed the historical circuit, but will probably get back on it again later when the weather is cooler to stop off at some of the sights. We stopped by the Palacio Real, and admired the great building from the outside. Apparently there are over 2800 rooms inside, of which about 50 are available for viewing by the public. Directly next to the palace is the Sabatini Gardens, designed by Sabatini himself for the King. It is a nice place, with low tidy shrubs (all in straight lines and at right angles like a maze) and a great huge fountain in the middle. After that, we enjoyed a nice lunch in an Argentinian restaurant and shared a pitcher of Sangria (ok, I had a quarter of a glass, and the guys finished the rest!!). We walked through the Puerta del Sol, and here we are again at this very nice Internet Cafe (same place we were 2 nights ago).

We're planning to go to Toledo tomorrow, and then over to Lisbon the day after (on a night train). I'm sure we'll have more stories to share later. Oh ya, I almost forgot. One thing we noticed.. there are lots of pda┤s (public displays of affection) here... in the underground train, on a park bench, on the side of the street, outside a shop, just about anywhere. It is quite different than North America where this is frowned upon, though there is something quite sweet about seeing two people in love. OK, enough for now. We┤re off to see more of Madrid. Hasta luego!

Tuesday, July 29, 2003

More about London
Madrid, Spain

I can┤t help but love this city! There is so much to see, do and absorb. We told Tijana that next time we visit it will be for much longer, and we┤ll visit the rest of the UK as well. Ah.. next time. I wonder when that will be? Where was I.. oh yes.. back to Sunday July 27th, Tijana drove us out to Oxford (30mins from Reading) to see the famous University. The town is really quite charming; lots of old buildings and history and a fun shopping district as well. I had never known that Oxford University was actually made up of several independent colleges. Hence the buildings are grouped together according to their college affiliations. The architecture was amazing, and it was neat to see something so old, and so prestigious. The highlight of Oxford for me was to see the Bodleain Library there. This building is 500 years old; unfortunately they were closed so we didn┤t get to see the inside of it.

After rushing back to Reading and taking the train into London, we met up with Anne and Dave to see the Lion King. It was a wonderful production. The costumes were amazing, more stunning than we had expected eventhough everyone who has seen it has raved about it. What a perfect ending to our wonderful safari. We had all been craving for sushi while on safari, so after the show, we enjoyed a wonderful sushi dinner in Chinatown. Yummy.

Our last day in London consisted of a lot of walking. Here┤s why: we had to visit the Canadian Embassy to request for additional pages to our passports. Travelling for one year requires lots of pages for visas, and I only have 4 empty pages left (yikes!) It would be terrible to get stuck in a country with no Canadian Embassy to bail me out so we thought we better be safe and get it done in London. After we arrived at the Baker Street Tube Station (to connect to another train that will get us closer to the embassy) we found out that there were delays to that particular line. So instead of waiting, we decided to walk. It was a very nice walk - the embassies are in an area called Mayfair (very posh). We saw lots of fancy cars there. After 30mins of walking we arrived at the Embassy to find out that we were at the WRONG place. Apparently there is another place called Canada Place which takes care of passport services. So since we had already spent 1.5 hours by now looking for this place (including train ride from Reading) we wanted to continue with our journey.

More walking.... till 45mins later, we arrived at Trafalgar Square and found the Canada House hidden behind a huge scaffolding (remodelling project). We were so thrilled to find out that we could get our new pages. Yippee! Winston and I split up for an hour while I went to visit the National Gallery and browsed through a bookstore. Too bad we┤re backpacking otherwise I would have bought more books! They are heavy though. We all met at the Southwark Cathedral on the other side of Thames and had our last lunch with Anne and Dave. It was nice to walk along the Thames Park and see all the main London buildings from that side of the river. We met up with Jon at the Tate Modern. It was sad to say goodbye to our Safari partners - they handed the baton over to Jon, for he was to meet us in Madrid the next day! We enjoyed dinner at a Thai Restaurant with Tijana back in Reading. Thanks again for a wonderful time Tijana! We look forward to showing you around Seattle next year!! :)

The Surrealism of International Travel
Madrid, Spain

It┤s a little weird... five days ago we were drinking coconut in Zanzibar, yesterday we were having a pot pie and a pint in London, and today we just finished tapas and cerveza in Madrid. The culture jumps are rather odd... it┤s like being picked up by some giant and plopped down in the middle of some totally different environment every few days. Hopefully our jumps from country to country won┤t be quite as frequent in the future... e.g. no sooner did we get a taste of England, we trotted off to another locale! And that really is all we are doing on this entire tour... getting a taste of several different countries and hopefully their corresponding cultures. For a true understanding of all the different countries we┤re visiting, we┤d have to spend ten years travelling instead of just one!

The interesting thing about our transition this time is that entering Spain marks the beginning of our first real foray into independant travel. Our three weeks in East Africa were fantastic, but we were pretty much handheld by the tour operators the whole way. In London, Tijana rolled out the red carpet for us (thanks AGAIN Tijana!), and it┤s not like London is a challenging place for us to navigate.

Spain, well, this is a brand new experience for both of us. Neither Jen or I have been here before, and neither of us speaks a word of Spanish, except for the very simple basics. It┤s funny when you say "Hola" to a waiter, and he saves you the trouble by answering "Hello, how can I help you?" in response. Additionally, this is where we now start finding our own accomodations as we go along, as opposed to having everything planned out in advance!

Madrid is pretty warm right now, as expected, but it┤s certainly not unbearable, at least not yet. Their subway system is sure impressive. Boy, do people dress nicely here. And hmm... there a LOT of attractive people walking around Madrid. Whooee. (!)

In any case, we┤re looking forward to learning more about Spain and Portugal over the next few weeks!

A City Unlike Any Other
Madrid, Spain

London will probably always keep us in awe. Even though there were throngs of tourists and things were RIDICULOUSLY expensive compared to anywhere else we┤ve been (and probably will be going), we still had a great stay in London. Thanks to our wonderful host Tijana, we got to visit the cities of Winchester, Salisbury, and Oxford, and also got in a visit into Stonehenge. We took in "The Lion King", which we all thoroughly enjoyed--of course, what other musical is there to watch after going on safari. Anne and Dave also enjoyed checking out a few of the many world-class museums and attractions that London has to offer. We said our good byes to them after travelling together for three weeks through East Africa--can┤t wait to see the pictures when we get back in a year! Get that oven warmed up now... ;) We also met up with Jon and his friend Andrew at the Tate Modern.

I┤m sure we┤ll be back several times, there is just far too much to see and do in that city. Our four days were a nice break from camping; the hot showers were fantastic of course, as were the flushing toilets! Ah... the simple basics.

Sunday, July 27, 2003

Reflections on Zanzibar
Reading, UK

Jen's been blogging most of our stuff, so I don't want to duplicate anything. However, I thought I'd share some thoughts on our four day taste of life on Zanzibar. Not knowing anything about Zanzibar before visiting, we were in the unique, but somewhat odd, position of not knowing anything about the country we were in. After learning about Masai and Samburu tribes in Kenya and mainland Tanzania, we were somewhat unprepared for the rich cacophony of cultures that Zanzibar had to offer.

What struck me primarily was how many people were walking along the roads, all the way from the airport to the hotel (a 1.5 hour drive), and how colourful many of the women's clothing was. Also immediately noticeable was how men and women did not seem to mix much together; if there were groups of people together, they were primarily women with children, or just men.

The next big impression I got was how crazy the driving is there. There are actually not many vehicles on the roads, but the ones that are certainly have the respect of everyone else on the road. It was kinda like driving through the Red Sea at 70 miles an hour; people would actually leap into the bushes along the sides of the road to get out of the way of passing vehicles. The dala dala's (public transport mini-buses, basically) didn't seem to be quite as crazy as the matatus in Kenya, but they came pretty close.

Another interesting observation was to see the various different religious influences that were apparent all over the island, from the differences between the Arabic and Indian doors in Stonetown, to the obvious Islamic influences in dress, architecture, language, and conduct. According to Mansour, "95% of Zanzibari's are Islamic, 3% are Christians, and 2% are Pagans with no religion who live under rocks and in trees." Seriously, that's what he said. Also apparent was the British influence and remnants of the colonial era, especially in certain areas of Stonetown.

Each morning when I'd get up at 6am to watch the sunrise (I know, unbelieveable, eh?), I'd encounter the two women who were hired to sweep the debris that had collected on the sand outside our cottages. The first few mornings, I'd say "Jambo" to them, the Swahili word for "Hello", but wouldn't get a response from either, not even an upwards glance. However, on the second last morning I tried "Salaam alykum," the Arabic greeting, and I was treating to a broad smile and an "Alykum salaam" in response. Just another little interesting interaction.

Like many overseas hotel/resort areas, the Zanzibar tourist areas are set up to provide European and Western tourists with the idyllic paradise environment, and our place, the Mnarani Beach Cottages, are no exception. However, hopefully tourists who stay at these places don't forget about the many miles of undeveloped shanty homes and obviously poor neighbourhoods that you need to go through to get to these beachside resorts. From the plane flying in, you get a great view of the thousands of simple concrete block structures covered with rusting corrugated tin roofs that are homes for thousands of people. Granted, the tourism industry provides many people with jobs that allow them to put bread on their tables, but a healthy dose of social awareness is probably a good thing for all who travel to places like Zanzibar.


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